Little information is available yet to conclude whether the shooter in Newtown, Conn., was diagnosed with, or treated for, mental illness. But last week’s incident has raised questions around the country about mental health and funding for treatment and services.
Amnon Shoenfeld has worked in the mental health field for more than 30 years. In all that time, Shoenfeld says it’s always been underfunded. Shoenfeld is director of King County’s Mental Health Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services. The agency provides outpatient treatment primarily for people on Medicaid and low-income people.
Shoenfeld says in recent years the situation has been very challenging. Starting in 2009, state lawmakers made major cuts in both mental health and substance abuse services. To date, funding has been slashed by more than 15 percent. At the same time, demand for services has grown by 40 percent. These budget cuts mean people are getting less attention because case managers are spread thin. Many programs that keep people out of the hospital have been cut too.
“Things like crisis respite beds for people in crisis, crisis diversion, hospital diversion beds, homeless outreach and stabilization services," says Shoenfeld. "Some of our residential treatment beds, we’ve had to close down. Next-day appointments for people who are in crisis, we’ve had to reduce the number of slots available."
King County has filled some of the funding gaps. In 2007, the County Council raised the sales tax to pay for outpatient mental health and substance abuse services. That levy expires in 2016.
Shoenfeld says funding is important to make sure people get the help they need. But just as crucial is removing the stigma of mental illness.
“The stigma is so destructive because that it keeps people from seeking treatment because of the way people are going to perceive them,” says Shoenfeld.
Shoenfeld says he’s relieved to see that there are no cuts to mental health services in the governor’s budget proposal. But that could change when the Legislature convenes and the new governor takes office in January.